Sometimes I catch my mother gazing at the ground. I’ve never been back home, but I imagine that grass is grass everywhere, that dust stings your eyes just the same no matter the continent. But when Ayyo looks out the window, it’s like there’s something wrong with the skyline.
Don’t look so sad, Ayyo. You’re still under the same sky.
She knows this. I’ve told her often enough. But sometimes, I wonder if the color of that sky looks a little different somehow.
Upon realizing I knew nothing about my people’s history, I decided to research them for a school project. After trying and failing to list every massacre, I came to two conclusions ― one: that violence is effective. Ethiopia wanted the land. They killed those who were on it. They now had the land. Two: that we could not use violence to get what we wanted. Then we would be like those who hurt us.
Oromo Liberation Front. Whispers of terrorism and insurgents ghosted through the back of my mind like a warning. No, the right path was with peace, head down, eye on the prize. King and Gandhi were splayed behind my eyes like the sun’s afterimage and I felt all the conviction one can at 13 years old. My logic was solid, not a contradiction to be found. I chanted that like a prayer, eyes and ears closed to that word, that question ― liberation.
It’s funny, the things that change travel plans. They were supposed to cut the tickets to Finfinnee that afternoon, but a phone call put a stop to all that. It was too late; she passed away. In between feeding mourners and watching stray children, I wondered if Baba regretted not bringing Akko to this country. One visit in 23 years is not enough time for a son to see his mother. But she was stubborn as he is. As I am. All her ancestors were buried in that soil. She saw no reason to start breaking that tradition.
When I grow up, I want hands like yours.
My mother took her hands out of my reverent grasp to scold me. No, you don’t want hands like these, these worker’s hands.
I always thought my mom was embarrassed about the oddest parts of her body. She thought her hands weren’t lady-like. I loved them because I knew the callouses were from all the housework she’d done for our family and others. Knew the way her nails never grew too long was because she used to work in kitchens and was used to cutting them down. Knew those barely-there scars were from cuts when paying bills, trying to understand fine print in a foreign language. And at seven years old, I promised I would have hands like those because all that she endured she did out of love for us.
Now I think I rather hate her hands.
I hate how they never stop trying to find work, even when there’s nothing to do. I hate the way she doesn’t flinch when burned from the stove, skin too used to the abuse to protest. I hate how they’re so quick to wash dishes, but bring food to her mouth at a reluctant pace. And I know. I know. I know all that labor was survival, was necessity, was something she did for us, but I can’t help but wonder why love always looks like pain on my mother.
Oromia bilisummaa. That’s what they always used to say, that Oromia would be free. Ayyo and Baba never really told me what we were trying to free ourselves from. My people have been beat down, harassed, killed in droves and forbidden to speak their native tongue in public. It probably would have saved Ethiopian regimes time and effort to know that a little U.S. soil was all it took to strip me of my language.
Perhaps grass isn’t grass everywhere.
My parents always talked about freedom for their land, but never of what made them leave it in the first place. I never learned that the year after a massacre the trees would still grow taller, black blood feeding brown earth. I knew nothing of the small planes and embassies with wide marble hallways but very little room for refugees. How they learned to say ضابط, ufficiale, officer, in whatever language their tongue could be contorted into that day. Until we had to take salt out of Baba’s food and measure his blood. Until Ayyo found she couldn’t stand after a few hours during my sister’s wedding. Until I heard them talking about mortgages and who the house would go to after they’re dead.
Then I realized just how much they survived and just how much it cost them.
I can’t recall all the different times my mother told me how to move in this world. With her smile to placate those who startle at scarves. With the voice she uses on the phone with people from the government. With the way her eyes never really left me and my siblings, like she could sense us, always wary, always waiting. Don’t jaywalk, Tamira, kiyya, they’ll see your hijab and drive faster. In all my childhood memories, I can see my Ayyo’s brow strong and high. I never could have guessed how far her head was pushed down to survive.
History books of black and brown people read a lot like obituaries. I’ve been trying to remember the dates, but every once in awhile I think I see my birth year among the headstones. Sometimes counting up bodies feels a lot more like counting down to something. But I’ve never been too good with numbers.
Ayyo likes watching the evening news on the couch and sometimes I accompany her. When the protestors fill the street, fill the screen, she clucks her tongue. Don’t be like those people, Tamira, wasting their futures. Don’t go out there. I promise and swallow the memories of my feet on asphalt. Bite the tongue that tries to tell her of how it felt to be with people who were trying to answer that question of liberation. Fight the part of me that wants to show her, the way she showed me, how she can move in this world – head truly high, laughter as loud as she pleased, smile unrestrained. How I’m not wasting anything, how I’m trying to grab, steal, cheat, take back a little of that dignity that was denied her.
Look at us, they used to say. We came into this country with nothing and now we’re living like the people who went to college. Like the white people. They took pride in the two car garage, the wide refrigerator, always competing with the neighbors to see who could get the greener grass. This, of course, was before we had to move because the mortgage seemed more like a grave than a promise. Before Baba’s mother died 7,660 miles away. And Ayyo’s father. And countless aunts and uncles I’ve never met. My mother’s mother is now 96 years old and wants to live back home again after 30 long years on strange earth. I wonder if she senses, like I do, that perhaps in that soil we can claim something the world above it robbed from us.
In California, we used to have a garden. It was one of the things I didn’t think I’d miss when we moved. Mint and thyme grew side by side, but what I remember the most were the sunflowers. Rows after row, without fail, they would swivel, seeking out that which would sustain them. In the morning hours, the fence would cast a shadow over the entire plot. The sun was very far away, but they knew intrinsically that if they just faced it, perhaps they’d find the energy to keep growing in the shade.
tamira amin is an undergrad at the university of minnesota twin cities. she was the editor-in-chief of the online publication fresh u minnesota and is currently getting ready to launch a podcast. in between classes, tamira spends time performing spoken word and developing a chapbook of her written poems to publish.
Ascend recently interviewed Jumana, an inspiring Palestinian artist known for her shop Watan Palestine. Jumana spoke of her experience in exile and how she views resistance and art.
How is your experience in the diaspora shaped by exile?
I’ll be honest, I’m still not quite sure how I approach this and don’t feel especially comfortable on saying things that I’ll very likely look back at and think “oh my god, I was so naive, magically idealistic, condescending in ignorance, etc.)."
How does exile and diaspora influence your art?
I think diaspora, for one, influences the entire main motive behind Watan and my art: that these pieces serve as a sort of totem (à la Inception) that reminds you of and connects you back to home, no matter where in the world you may be.
Do you view art as a form of resistance? Why or why not?
I’m still conflicted by this, I think. On one hand, art can definitely be an affirmation of existence, a preservation of culture, a form of resistance, and more; it can be used as a tool, like science and organizing can be for others. But on the other, art is something many of us can create because we are at a certain level of privilege. Here I reference the idea of Maslow’s "Hierarchy of Needs”, or the idea that humans have certain prerequisite needs they need to reach before they are “fulfilled” enough to reach higher levels of self-actualization. Simply, we need to be feel safe before we can be able to create and innovate.
So I suppose it comes down to context and intention, to put it generally.
On the about page on Watan, you say that your aim with creating this shop is to reconnect Palestinians with their culture, how do you go about this? What does that look like, exactly?
I wouldn’t say that Watan is a way of reconnecting Palestinians with their culture; that comes off as assuming they aren’t connected to begin with – but how can a person be entirely disconnected with a culture? Instead, Watan operates at a few levels: 1) it aims to create a visual archive of bits of Palestinian heritage (think an Instagram-version of Wikipedia), 2) it encourages individuals to go beyond the surface of images and icons and really research on their own history, and 3) compiles resources for something easily accessible (both on and offline). From what I’ve seen, just presuming to “reconnect Palestinians with their culture” in the scope of a shop tends to be manipulative (i.e. “buy our [insert item] because it’s in honor of Mahmoud Darwish!”) and I want to do my best to ensure Watan stays far away from becoming anything like that.
Watan means homeland in Arabic, do you consider Palestine home? If so, how does that shape your experience in the diaspora?
When I think of home, I inevitably think of “community”. For me, to say that Palestine is home automatically subsumes everyone I’m lucky enough to count as part of my community. Do I dream that one day I can go back and live in Palestine? Of course! It’s a beautiful place (and I dream of building a public library surrounded by olive and orange trees in Akka) and a place I plan to one day live in inshallah. But when I dream of that day, I always envision my friends and family living around me as well.
What is your al-Nakba story?
My grandparents on both sides of my family were born in Palestine. My mother’s side came from Yaffa. My grandfather’s family left Palestine for economic reasons and moved to Kuwait; he later came back to Palestine, married my grandmother, and went back to Kuwait. As consequence, my mother was born in Kuwait and later moved to Jordan in 8th grade. My father’s side lived in Barkusia in Al-Khalil when the Nakba happened (though my family is originally from the main city in Al-Khalil). My grandfather fled on July 9th, 1948, which was the first day of Ramadan that year, if I remember correctly. When they fled, they couldn’t take anything with them so my grandfather actually ended up starving to the point of temporary blindness. It wasn’t until my great-grandfather got his hands on a bit of animal fat a few days later that my grandfather got his sight back. Both sides of my family still live in Jordan.
Does Watan seek to preserve Palestinian culture through art or is it also a new form of expression for a new generation of diasporic Palestinians?
Why not both? :) Watan is definitely interested in archiving Palestinian history in our own way. So, in a sense, we’re hoping to preserve Palestinian heritage in a kind of online catalog. At the same time, it’s done so with an intention of serving the diaspora. But for us to really get to that point, we have to get through a lot of old first. Imagine a paper you have to write. You can’t possibly get to the new, your arguments, without going through the old, yes? You can’t possibly synthesize a vision of the new without knowing the old.
Tell us about your library project. (What it is and the purpose)
So we just opened our first studio storefront a couple weeks ago (finally!). We aim to use this space as a studio space for our work, a storefront for people to be able to visit and buy things in person, and as a community space to hold events, workshops and more. In essence, what we’re trying to explore is the possibility of building a Palestinian institution here in the Chicagoland area. Though this community here is the second-largest community of Palestinians in the US, there really isn’t much in the way of Palestinian/Arab institutions here (though this isn’t to detract from the wonderful work already happening, of course)! The library, then, is a part of the effort to build something for the community. The idea for the library actually came from SJP UCLA and their Alex Odeh library! Watan’s library, the Palestinian Women’s Library, aims to collect any and all books on Palestine. I hope one day that it numbers in the thousands of books; we can dream, right? This library is free to the public and builds on our hope to create something permanent for our community.
What is your favorite piece from the collection and why?
Oh gosh, this is always so hard to answer. I think, at the moment, it has to be either the Qabbeh tatreez crewneck sweatshirt or our Kuffiyeh phonecases. Suffice to say, I’ve always got a bit of Watan on me at all times.
I loved these questions and they’ve definitely been taking me some time to grapple with and continue to grapple with.